Footprints in the cloud

Image: Calamur/Flickr

I do love my gadgets, so for Father’s Day yesterday I was presented with a new universal remote control. Isaac, who has inherited his father’s gadget gene, immediately took a shine to this and promptly spent the rest of the day trying to prise it out of my hands. This led to him asking Heather: “Mummy, when Daddy dies can I have the remote control?” This sounded rather like a death threat to me, and was rapidly followed up by Toby asking if he could have it when Isaac dies.

Don’t be surprised if you soon read about police in Thatcham finding a three-year-old boy clutching a remote control, surrounded by the blood-splattered bodies of his father and older brother.

Amusing little anecdote as this was, it did leave me wondering what I would leave behind if I were to be run over by the proverbial bus tomorrow. A wife and three kids, obviously, but what else? Out of 7.1 billion people currently living in this world, how much of a legacy would I leave, or would the essence of my existence soon fade like footprints in the sand?

Image: Calamur/Flickr
Image: Calamur/Flickr

The digital revolution

Until comparatively recently, personal legacies have been sparse. We leave behind some financial and property assets, birth, marriage and death certificates, the memories of family and friends, photograph albums and perhaps a few videos. All these provide little more than a sketchy picture of even a life lived to the full – a few snapshots of specific moments in time and stories which, like photographs, gradually fade until all that is left is a name and the dates which record our birth and death.

All that has now changed, almost in the blink of an eye. Ten years ago there was no Facebook (launched in 2004), YouTube (2005) or Twitter (2006). The word ‘podcast’ only came into being in 2004. Even WordPress, the world’s most popular blogging platform which powers over 60 million websites (including this one), only celebrated its tenth birthday last month. That means in the last ten years close to one billion people have started posting status updates, audio and video files, 140-character observations and blog posts about family, sports, TV and a million other topics to the world-wide web, to be stored in perpetuity in the digitally networked cloud.

Where once we shared only tiny glimpses of ourselves with a handful of people, nowadays millions of us broadcast the minutiae of our lives and thoughts for all the world to read, see and listen to.

Fingerprints & footprints

The footprints we leave in the digital cloud are larger, more numerous and more permanent than those we once left in the metaphorical sand. Through social media, we will live on in a form of virtual immortality.

Out of curiosity I googled my own name last night, just to see what footprints I’m leaving in the cloud. Unsurprisingly, given that I have both a relatively unusual name and a fairly broad online footprint, six of the ten results on the first page relate solely to me. It wouldn’t take more than an internet connection and 15 minutes to get a good sense of who I am, what I do and what my interests are via links to my blogs, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, Twitter, YouTube and various others.

Whether that’s a good thing or not is arguable. On the one hand there are the obvious concerns around privacy and the potential for identity theft. On the other, if I didn’t see the benefits in sharing information about myself then I wouldn’t have an active social media profile in the first place.

A personal legacy?

Which brings me in a roundabout way to why I started blogging in the first place. There are many reasons: I actively enjoy writing for the sense of creative process it entails (it’s in my nature to be more interested in the journey than the destination), it brings me into contact with interesting people (the most random being singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega) and it is a way of stretching myself and learning new things.

But I also feel that I’m leaving something of myself behind for the posterity of my children. Should that proverbial bus come bearing down on me tomorrow, there will be a permanent record of much more than the mere facts of my life. Somewhere in all those tweets, status updates, blog posts and amusing photos, videos and bon mots about my kids, there is a piece of the person behind the facts – a small sliver of my soul, if you will. If I were to die tomorrow, I’d like to think my children will forever have a window into who I was, not just what I was. As well as a remote control to fight over.

Writers often talk about pouring their heart and soul into their published work. What the internet has enabled is the ability for all of us to do the same in some small way via social media. There is, of course, no emotion in the ones and zeroes that are the currency of the digital universe. And yet, importantly, there is. In the intangible virtual world, millions of us are leaving permanent footprints in the cloud for the posterity of future generations.